Ode To Gamma Ferric Oxide

Yeah, there is a shortage of gamma ferric oxide. It’s the main ingredient in the recording media in a cassette tape. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel, I’ll just let you check out this Pitchfork story:


Cassettes ARE making a comeback, but I think that it’s not ever going to be as massive as the return to vinyl, but, it’s happening.

I still have tapes from the 80’s in my collection. They’re not nostalgic if you never got rid of them.

Yep, these are mine.

I recently posted about buying the “Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral” on cassette. That WAS nostalgic.

While reading the Pitchfork article I was reminded of a few things tape related in my past.

First of all, I became intimately entrenched in tape culture in an offhanded way. When my friend Alan moved away from Ann Arbor when we were in school, and I was devastated… we kept in touch using tapes. We would record ourselves talking and send them to each other. Sometimes talking about what we were listening to, what was up in school, really anything that crossed out minds. It was a super low budget process. We used tapes we had laying around, we bought knowingly crap tapes sometimes because that was all we could afford, or sometimes would record over random self help tape collections that we found at good will. It was certainly quantity over quality. These tapes were a constant connection to my friend and a balm in the valleys and joy at the peaks of my life. I have them all digitized now of course, but their true essence is gamma ferric oxide.

I was one of those kids that held his bulky portable tape player to the stereo speaker to record his favorite songs from the radio. You know, you end up with a tape that cuts off the first 5 seconds of your favorites because you couldn’t undo the pause quick enough, but the whole tape is filled with your favorites and you love it just the same. I recorded (in the same fashion – the speaker press) the entire soundtrack to “A Star Is Born” with Kristofferson and Streisand and listened to it in bed when I went to sleep. It was my first dub.

It was seeing someones tape collection of recorded albums for the first time when I was in high school that really blew me away. They were lined up in a rack, all the same brand with hand written labels of names of bands and albums I liked. “You mean the whole album is on this cassette?! …And you have like 20 of these tapes? and there is an album on each side of the tape?! It seemed like bootleg whiskey. I felt like I was in with gangsters. You could buy a 10 pack of these cassettes for the price of a couple albums, then record like 40 albums? It was literally mind blowing. What seems wholly unremarkable now, was ground breaking then. It felt like I was just introduced to a whole new world. It was the same way years and years later when I finally got a computer that could burn CD’s. That kind of a quantum leap.

I did a few years as a bootleg tape trader. This was when I was introduced to Maxell XL II – S cassettes. The Maxell XL II seemed to be the tape trader favorite. They were more expensive than my beloved TDK 90 tapes, but had better sound quality, or so the tape traders all said. Here are a couple brand new unopened I picked up (for fun) at a garage sale for $1 each.

I traded tapes with folks for a few years, until it got out of hand and I spent more time cataloging and rating and trading than actually enjoying the music. These days you could probably download everything I spent years amassing in an afternoon, probably with better sound quality. I still have most of them anyway.

I had a label that I printed so that they all looked the same, numbered for easy finding and I wasted no tape on each, filling the leftover tape at the ends with shorter recordings. Trying to get all I could on the fewest tapes. It was a process.

There were flaws in tapes though. No getting around that. They were always getting eaten in the car stereo, and though you would buy expensive tapes to record albums on, companies mass producing tapes sometimes were not as quality minded.

I remember one tape in particular, that taught me that it was best to be wary.

Back in the day when Bruce Willis was white hot (remember Moonlighting?), he released an album. I know, an actor doing music. Didn’t I just write about that? I heard one song on the radio and was sufficiently tempted to pick it up. It was “Bruce Willis – The Return Of Bruno”. Note: This one is NOT mine.

He played some blues and I remember liking it, not loving it, but as I listened to it, I noticed something weird. Between songs I could hear the other side of the tape playing quietly backwards. After a few listens, it started to really bug me. I mean I spent money on this and I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would, and I decided to return it. Now returning an opened tape was kind of like returning an opened package of underwear. The mall record store guy was skeptical when I described the scenario. He thought I was joking. I insisted. Grudgingly he took the tape to the back room and played it over the store sound system. After the first song he listened intently. You could hear it plain as day. With a sigh, he conceded and offered to let me go grab another one. I countered with “will it sound better than this one?”

He looked me in the eye, sighed again, and I left with my $8 bucks. It may actually be the last time I was ever in a mall record store.

So I don’t know if the worlds supply of gamma ferric oxide will ever actually run out, or if this is some clever ploy by manufacturers to create artificial demand for an outdated format that is coming back to life, or if my Tone-Loc cassingle of “Wild Thing” is gaining value as we speak because of it, but it is cool to know that there are others out there that still dig cassettes and there is still a demand.

Lastly, I recommend a book about mix tapes. I read it a few years back and love the stories, and the pictures of tapes throughout. Edited by Jason Bitner.


I recommend the book AND suggest you go dig out your mix tapes and make sure all the cassettes you are currently storing are rewound and ready to go. You never know…

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